Music runs to the very core of mezzosoprano Joyce DiDonato, guest on yesterday's BBC Radio 4's long-running and beautifully judged programme, Desert Island Discs.
Even if she is tired before a show, everything changes when the music starts… “This business feeds me”.
Her first disc to take to the desert island is to make her feel good: an Argentinian tango.
Carlos Gardel, José Razzano and Celedonio Flores's Mano a mano sung by José Manuel Zapata
DiDonato says she has never strived for perfection as that leads to admiration, yes, but it won't get people to travel to come and see you, for that “you need to give yourself permission to jump off the cliff”.
Her first solo with the high school choir is her second choice:
Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols, ‘That yonge child'
Young Joyce's escape from the pressure of a chaotic family life, and severe economic difficulties, (she was the 6th of seven children) was singing along to her sister's LP of Jesus Christ Superstar, becoming Mary Magdalene as she sang into her hairbrush mic.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar, ‘I Don't Know How to Love Him'
DiDonato didn't get along well with her mother who she feels “didn't enjoy being a Mom”. She had a sense of being unworthy: “What else do I have to do to get her to see me?” At the piano, though, she felt understood: “I could express myself freely”.
Billy Joel's Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
Riccardo Muti said, “Why are you singing so poorly?” and walked out of the room when she was at La Scala to rehearse for a Christmas Concert in 2001, shortly after her phenomenal debut at the theatre in Cenerentola. At the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia they taught her “not to cry in front of the conductor”. Muti was demanding excellence, she says: it was at La Scala and live on television. She didn't cave in but “stepped up to the next level”…
That concert was one of the best musical experiences I've ever had… not easy, but it made me better.
Her fifth choice is a “piece that restores my faith in mankind and humanity”.
Mozart's overture to Le nozze di Figaro
From the age of 26 until she was 29 she rebuilt her technique, and then found European management who arranged 13 auditions in 13 cities in just 16 days. After 12 outright rejections – “We have nothing for her” – she went to the only A level house on the list, The Paris Opera, and they offered her Il barbiere… “I cried”.
Her next choice is a piece that always brings her “back to centre”, reminding her also of her father conducting his choir (it was played at his funeral):
Randall Thompson's Alleluia
DiDonato explains how Francesca Zambello joked to her and other students at Houston Opera Studio about the four stages of a singer's career. Using herself as an example she says,
Who is Joyce DiDonato?
Get me Joyce DiDonato!
Get me someone like Joyce DiDonato.
Who is Joyce DiDonato?
She guesses that right now she's somewhere in the middle of the four sentences.
She explains how after 9/11 she realised that religion – she was brought up in a Catholic household – wasn't making sense to her anymore and it was no longer a place where she could rationally find comfort. She turned to music to bring back sanity:
U2's Pride (In the name of love)
DiDonato says she's no diva because “it's so much work”.
I play a character on stage and I love it… but I really don't want to play a character offstage. It's exhausting. I want to be me.
After playing Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking she got to know Prejean who wrote a four song cycle called The Deepest Desire, the 4th of which is called Primary Colors:
I live my life in primary colors.
I let praise or blame fall where they may.
I hold my soul in equanimity
And leave the fruits of my labors to God.
At night, when I pray, I catch on fire;
And when I put my head on the pillow,
I fall instantly to sleep.
Jake Heggie and Helen Prejean's Primary Colors from The Deepest Desire sung by Joyce DiDonato
On her Desert Island she can also choose a book:
Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One.
It sounds like a self-help book but it's not.
And a luxury:
Lavender Scented Oil.
I imagine it will be stressful being on the island and it will calm me down in a nice way.
And if she had to save just one disc from the waves?
Jake Heggie and Helen Prejean are both friends and it talks about the big picture. It will remind about what's really important and I'll be surrounded by friends.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.